China is flexing its muscles: time to worry

It would be crazy if a bunch of five uninhabited rocks precipitated a military conflict between two world powers. That doesn't mean it won't happen

Share
Fact File
  • 7km2 Area of the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands

It would be crazy if a bunch of five uninhabited rocks, covering no more than seven square kilometres, precipitated a military conflict between the world’s second and third largest economic powers. Crazy, and most unlikely: but all the same, it is strange how little attention is being paid to the increasingly fraught dispute between China and Japan over what the former calls Diaoyu and the latter Senkaku.

On the other hand, I have just returned from a week in Japan, so perhaps I am out of touch with the priorities in Britain (and maybe mainland Europe, too): what to do about the publication of fuzzy photos of the Duchess of Cambridge without her top on. Meanwhile in Asia... there have been mass demonstrations in 80 cities across China against the decision of the Japanese government to buy the disputed islands from their private owner (a Japanese businessman); various Japanese multinationals, such as Canon and Panasonic have closed down their factories in China, to avoid the risk of being stormed by irate local mobs – one firm has already seen some of its production facilities destroyed; and an aide to the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that Japan’s Self Defence forces might need to be deployed, as “we cannot rule out the possibility that China will deploy its military ”.

Today might be the peak of the disturbances, which have to be seen in the context of Chinese resentment over historic injustices: 18 September marks the anniversary of the Manchurian incident of 1931, the bomb plot contrived by the Imperial Japanese Army to justify the invasion of Manchuria. This explains why the Japanese School in Beijing has been closed today (and yesterday) but hopes to reopen tomorrow.

In the West there is a wide knowledge of Japan’s actions as an enemy of the US and Britain in the Second World War. Those, in a quasi-legal manner, were dealt with by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, commonly known as the Tokyo war crimes-trial. Yet that tribunal, despite its official title, did not much concern itself with what had gone on in Manchuria as part of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945. As America’s leading historian of 20th century Japan, John Dower, wrote in his magisterial Embracing Defeat: “The Americans who controlled the prosecution chose to grant blanket secret immunity to one group of Japanese whose atrocious crimes were beyond question, namely the officers and scientific researchers in Unit 731 in Manchuria who had conducted lethal experiments on thousands of prisoners (they were exempted from prosecution in exchange for sharing the results of the research with the Americans).”

But there is very little that modern governments of Japan can do about that now, other than to apologise; and that they have done repeatedly over the years; perhaps the most striking was the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s statement in front of dozens of heads of state in 2005, that “Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering for the people of many countries, particularly those of Asian nations.” China’s President Hu Jintao, who was present, did not react to the apology.

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in fact dates back to the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5; it was in 1895 that Japan took control of the rocky outcrops, which lie close to Taiwan rather than mainland China (let alone Japan). While I was in Tokyo I had the benefit of discussing this issue with Professor Shinichi Kitaoka, the former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations, who as an eminent academic historian was the Japanese chairman of the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee which investigated the Nanking Massacre.

Kitaoka pointed out what is not in dispute: that the islands had long been administered by Japan and that they had never physically been occupied by China. He added that it was only in 1968 when it was discovered that the seabed around the islands could contain oil reserves that China raised the issue of sovereignty. He observed that Taiwan also lays claim to the islands; and, with a smile, added that the People’s Republic of China makes its own claim precisely through the belief that Taiwan is itself wholly and indivisibly part of its rightful territory.

Kitaoka, a veteran of these disputes, told me that one of the problems he had found when discussing such matters with negotiators from the People’s Republic was that over the years they would come up with different “official” views over what constitutes China’s legitimate territory: “Sometimes they would tell us ‘The Korean peninsula is ours’. On other occasions they would even show us maps on which all Asia apart from Japan and India is designated as China.”

Like many less well-informed souls, the former Japanese UN Ambassador is deeply worried by what he sees as the deliberate stoking of aggressive nationalism by the Chinese leadership. His own belief is that this stems from the demise of the Soviet Union: that with the collapse of Marxism as a unifying ideology – and witnessing what that meant for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – the Chinese leadership realised that only nationalism could fill the gap. Of course, the Chinese politburo can also lay claim to the support of the public on the basis that since the reforms led by Deng Xiao Ping it has presided over an extraordinary economic transformation, and the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty.

It was only in 1968 when it was discovered that the seabed around the islands could contain oil reserves that China raised the issue of sovereignty.

That tearaway economic growth is now slowing, however; and at the same time it is becoming increasingly clear how the families of party big-wigs have become fantastically enriched through their control over the levers of economic power, especially the sale of land ostensibly owned by the people collectively. It is easy for commentators to imagine how the Chinese leadership – in a tricky period of transition – might see a row with Japan over some rocks in the East China Sea as a way of deflecting public anger from the corruption of party officials when the economy is itself entering choppy waters.

Somehow, I doubt it. If the overriding interest of the Chinese leadership is economic stability, it cannot make sense to endanger trade and investment with its most prosperous neighbour. Indeed, the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department has issued instructions to the state media to desist from reporting on Japan’s alleged misdeeds.

The problem is that for some years now the Chinese government has indulged a spirit of revanchism; understandable as that might have been in the context of China’s growing economic and military might, such forces once released are almost impossible to control. Trouble, in other words.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

What I saw on the night my husband was hit by a car

Rebecca Armstrong
UK border control at Heathrow Airport  

Luckily for Barbara Roche, formerly of the Home Office, Easter reminds us that heaven loves the repenting sinner best

Matthew Norman
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit